2023 U.S. Trials Previews: The Battle Between Berkoff and Smith in the 50 Back

2023 U.S. NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS

WOMEN’S 50 BACK — BY THE NUMBERS:

Note: Selection to non-Olympic events (50s of stroke) is the fifth and last priority for team selection. Only the top finisher in each of these events will be added to the team (if there is space). The second spot at Worlds will be given to a swimmer already on the team who qualified in the corresponding 100 event, provided they have an A-cut in the 50.

Last Year

Like the 100 backstroke and 200 backstroke, this was set to be an extremely tight race at the 2022 International Team Trials, led by veterans such as Regan Smith and Olivia Smoliga. In prelims, Smith hit the wall first with a time of 27.40, with NC State’s Katharine Berkoff coming in just behind Smith with a 27.44. Smoliga, Rhyan White, and Erika Brown rounded out the top 5. Then in the final, Berkoff shocked everyone, dropping an American Record of 27.12 to win the event and earn a berth at her first World Championships. Smith finished second in 27.25, with Smoliga touching third with a 27.33. Due to her first-place finish in the 100 backstroke, Smith was awarded the second spot in this event at the World Championships. 

At Worlds, both Smith and Berkoff easily progressed through the prelims and semi-finals, entering the finals ranked 2nd and 5th, respectively. Berkoff once again made the most of her opportunity to swim in the final, throwing down a 27.39 to claim the silver medal in the event, the first Worlds medal of her career. She finished only .08 behind gold medalist Kylie Masse of Canada, who won in a time of 27.31. In a tight field, Smith fell to 5th with her time of 27.47 only .07 off of the podium. 

The Contenders

Since their performances at the World Championships, Smith and Berkoff have established themselves as the clear favorites to go 1-2 in this event. The only question is: who will come out on top? 

So far this season, Berkoff leads the national rankings with her 27.40 from the Westmond Pro Swim Series. She stands only .14 ahead of Smith, who swam a 27.54 at Westmont to finish second to her at that meet. 

Given her recent form that has seen her throw down US Open Records in the 100 backstroke, 200 backstroke, and 200 butterfly, it is clear that Smith is at peak form right now. However, Berkoff still holds a faster best time and season best than Smith, putting her ahead in the race. Plus, Bob Bowman, Smith’s coach has historically had his athletes focus on Olympic events rather than non-Olympic races like the 50s. In addition, Smith is already entered in the 100 butterfly on day 3 of Trials, creating a conflict in her schedule. Thus, Smith may turn her focus towards attempting to qualify for a spot via the 100 backstroke instead. 

The Rest of the Pack

Smith and Berkoff are the clear favorites. However, there are many other athletes who will be in contention. Seven out of the 8 A-finalists from last year’s meet are entered in this event on the psych sheets for this year, including all of the top 5 finishers. 

Olivia Smoliga, the former American Record holder and 2019 World Champion in this event, is set to compete. She currently holds a season best of 28.07 from the PSS meet in Knoxville, but her lifetime best stands at a 27.33, the time she swam to win gold in 2019. Smoliga has been training alongside Smith at Arizona State, giving her a chance to chase her own teammate down for the title and another chance at World Championship gold. 

Freestyle specialists Gretchen Walsh, Abbey Weitzeil, and Erika Brown are also slated to swim based on their psych sheet entries. Walsh currently holds the fastest season-best of the three swimmers with the 27.75 that she swam at the NCAP Elite Qualifier last month. She only comes into the meet as the 11th seed, entered with a 100 backstroke time. However, she managed a 5th place finish last year, and looks primed to challenge that already, especially given her strong 50 backstrokes on the NCAA stage this year. 

Weitzeil enters this event with a season best of 27.95 that she swam in Westmont. It remains to see whether she, as the favorite to win both the 50 and 100 freestyle, will actually contest this race as she has never done so on the national level. With a taper under her belt, though, Weitzeil could find significantly more speed. 

Likewise, Brown is also heavily favored in the 50 and 100 freestyle, so she could opt to skip this race. At last year’s meet, Brown placed 7th in the A-final with a 28.24 after swimming a lifetime best of 28.05 in prelims. She’s already been a 28.37 to rank 10th amongst Americans this season. 

The last returning A-finalists from last year are Rhyan White and . Like Walsh, Berglund is entered with a 100 backstroke time, leaving her seeded 13th on the psych sheets. However, she threw down a 28.44 last year to finish 9th in prelims before a scratch from Claire Curzan moved her up into the A-final, where she matched her time to finish 8th. Berglund does not appear to have a 50 backstroke time registered this season, making her status in the event relatively unknown. White narrowly missed out on the podium in this event last year, coming in only a tenth behind Smoliga to finish 4th in a 27.45. She has already been a 28.09 this season to rank 7th in the nation, giving her a good shot of returning to the A-final again. 

Isabelle Stadden did not race this event last year, but she’s set to take a shot at it this year, entering the meet as the 5th seed with a time of 27.80. That time, her personal best, came at the recent Pro Swim Series stop in Westmont, giving her a good shot to improve her times with a taper. Stadden, one of the top 200 backstrokers in the country, has not made a long course senior international team since the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, and will be chasing her shot here. Claire Curzan is also one to watch as the 8th seeded swimmer. However, she scratched from the A-final of this event last year and given her extremely crowded event schedule, it seems likely that she drops this one from her schedule. 

Amy Fulmer and Josephine Fuller are ranked 9th and 10th on the psych sheet currently. Given their entry times, either swimmer may push into the top 8, especially if an athlete like Curzan decides to scratch.

SwimSwam’s Top 8:

Place Swimmer Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Katharine Berkoff 27.4 27.12
2 Regan Smith 27.54 27.25
3 Gretchen Walsh 27.75 27.75
4 Olivia Smoliga 28.07 27.33
5 Isabelle Stadden 27.8 27.8
6 Rhyan White 28.09 27.45
7 Abbey Weitzeil 27.95 27.95
8 Erika Brown 28.37 28.05

Dark Horse Pick: Maggie Wanezek – At only 17 years old, Wanezek is on the younger side of the competitors in the field. However, the Wisconsin commit has proven speed in the pool, holding a best time of 28.39 that would put her right in the mix with several of the other competitors. Currently, her season best stands at a 28.83, ranking her 15th nationally. If she plays her cards right, don’t be surprised to see another teenager in the final. 

 

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Swimmer
9 months ago

I get the description of smoliga as a veteran, but not sure about putting Smith in that category!

jeff
9 months ago

Hmm wonder if Smith might scratch? I can’t see her not winning the 100 back which would pretty much guarantee* her for the 50 back right?

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  jeff
9 months ago

I think she swims it because she’s on the Bowman “we’ll have you swim everything to make you even tougher for Paris” train. Kalisz will be swimming “off” events he can final in but not make the team. Phelps swam so many events at one Olympic Trials he gave up his 200 back spot at the Olympics.

Snarky
9 months ago

World Record inbound!

hambone
9 months ago

3,2,1….BLASTOFF

About Nicole Miller

Nicole Miller

Nicole has been with SwimSwam since April 2020, as both a reporter and social media contributor. Prior to joining the SwimSwam platform, Nicole also managed a successful Instagram platform, amassing over 20,000 followers. Currently, Nicole is pursuing her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. After competing for the swim …

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